There is Life After the Bench

Aug 30 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I take career development very seriously, and spend a fair bit of time on and offline talking to postdocs who are looking for help in moving their careers in new directions. I was one of them once (and may be again one day, who knows?), and I was incredibly fortunate to have a great mentor help me transition away from the bench when my lab career sputtered and died.

I am kind of a LinkedIn evangelist and also attend networking meetings with a couple of local groups, some science focused, others not so much. At one of these last year I met a local postdoc and we got to chatting. We've gone for beers a couple of times and I've done my best to offer ad hoc advice when it's been asked for; nothing formal, just offering experience and perspective. I wasn't convinced that hir mentor was taking hir career development seriously, and worried it was dead-end tech position that was being held to postdoc standards: you spend all day doing scut work, but are still expected to produce real data and papers and so forth...I firmly voiced my concerns once and left it that. This person seemed happy just puttering along, until recently.

I received an email from hir about how hir position was gradually being undermined from within the lab and how hir relationship with hir mentor had gone from indifferent to bad (as I expected when hir productivity was necessarily so low). There was a great position at local hospital being advertised, but zhe wondered if the job was beyond hir reach because of being stuck as a postdoc/tech for so long and not getting as much clinical experience as might have benefited hir.

Although I didn't know anyone in this department at the hospital I went on LinkedIn and saw someone only once removed my network who worked there. And in addition I was directly linked with a former colleague who knew this individual personally. I was able to facilitate an introduction and then an informal meeting between my postdoc friend and the person recruiting at the hospital. The meeting went well and my chum was encouraged to apply for the position. We spent quite a bit of time on hir resume and cover letter - after all, no one outside the lab gives a damn how good your western blots are, they care about your experience in delivering output on time and under budget, for example.

Fact: Most postdocs do not appreciate all the "soft" (non-bench) skills they possess that should be nurtured at the same time as patch-clamp technique JUST IN CASE you need your Career "Plan B".
Fact: Most mentors do not appreciate all the "soft" (non-bench) skills that should be nurtured at the same time as patch-clamp technique JUST IN CASE their postdoc needs Career "Plan B".

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I got an email this morning and this is what it said:

"I just got offered the job! I would like to thank you for all of your help. I don't think I could have done this without you."

This makes it all worth while. There is Life After the Bench.

9 responses so far

  • physioprof says:

    Most postdocs do not appreciate all the "soft" (non-bench) skills they possess that should be nurtured at the same time as patch-clamp technique JUST IN CASE you need your Career "Plan B".

    Unless Career Plan A is "remain a serf in someone else's laboratory forever", then "soft skills" are absolutely required for Career Plan A as well! This is especially the case if Career Plan A is "eventually run your own lab".

  • gerty-z says:

    Tiddles, you are awesome. I try to help the folks I mentor with their "soft skills", but honestly I think that I'm not great at it. In large part, I suspect, because I am still in academia and never had to hone those skills as much.

    Anyway, super post.

  • physioprof says:

    I am still in academia and never had to hone those skills as much.

    I really don't understand this claim. So-called "soft skills" are as important for success in academia as they are in other professional contexts. If you obtained a jobbe as a tenure-track faculty member at a reputable research university, you have absolutely already demonstrated excellent "soft skills". And if you succeed at earning tenure, you will have definitely upped your "soft skills" game even further.

  • brooksphd says:

    I'm with Proffe on this one. Gerty, perhaps because you're TT in research your...professional id is built around your chops and reputation as a scientist - experimental skills and techniques, grant writing, analysis etc. But the latent "soft" skils you use are valuable to your career too, and these are the ones postdocs need to think about whether they go into a TT career or a non-bench career.

    Re - Proffe's first comment - I agree with you, but add this caveat for clarification: your soft skills are valuable on your TT hunt, but your expertise and chops as a bench scientist are what gets you furthest along that road. If you're not going down that path for whatever reason, then these skills need to be nurtured and *documented* before you get you next space. You and others have written a lot about the first, nerve-wracking steps a junior faculty member takes as they realize that doing a great western blot isn't enough anymore. Personnel management, budgets, various styles of writing etc., all need to be done in order to run the lab, but these are not the focus of many postdoctoral training stints.

    I think they should be a focus of postdoc training, in addition to performing the services for which one receives one's salary. But right now, because of the current state of the US academic science, if you're in an NIH funded position you owe the lab and the public your work.

    Everything else is gravy and you do it on your own dime and in your own time. But it HAS to be done.

  • physioprof says:

    Everything else is gravy and you do it on your own dime and in your own time. But it HAS to be done.

    All post-docs in my lab--regardless of whether they are paid from my research grants or have their own NRSAs--spend time on developing and employing their so-called "soft skills", with my blessing and mentoring.

  • brooksphd says:

    That's very cool dude. I had to force time to get some stuff done when I was LabRat. My postdoc mentor tolerated, but certainly didn't encourage it. It was even raised as s bone of contention and used as a "bargaining chip" when I was trying to leave the lab to persue new opportunities.

    I'd be interested in knowing what fraction of postdocs do try and expand their skill sets, in addition to bench chops (a small number I'd bet), and what proportion of those do so with the blessing and even encouragement of their mentor. I fear the fraction is vanishingly small.

  • gerty-z says:

    I guess I was trying to say that it is easy for me to help folks write and communicate their science. I also encourage networking and activities that could be useful for long-term career development (outside of the TT). But I have NO IDEA if anything I say is actually useful, because I have only used those skills for myself in the context of academia. Does that make sense?

  • BrooksPhD says:

    I think as a successful academician of the "New Wave of Academicians", if you feel you're making a useful contribution to your trainees development by helping them with relevant skills then this is a positive thing!